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Adiaphora and Agápé

January 18, 2016

“Adiaphora and Agápé” 1 Peter 2:9-12 and 3:8-12; John 17:1-2, 6, 17-26 © 1.17.16 for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was younger, there wasn’t a liturgical or ecclesiastical issue ditch I wouldn’t die in. The fate of the Church and maybe the world hung on what provisions were voted in or out of the denominational constitution, what doctrines we affirmed, and/or how the church year was observed. Everything mattered and in the same measure. So I applied litmus tests, like “I don’t think he’s Truly Reformed”; listened closely to examinations of ministers for the proper theological buzz words; and argued with organists and church members over whether we could sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on the first Sunday of Advent.

But as I got older and learned more, grew in experience and maybe faith, the list of issues that were absolute matters of conscience became shorter. Don’t get me wrong; there are still things that are vitally important to me, even that I obsess over. But the world has not ended because somebody sang a Christmas carol in early December or didn’t wear the right vestment for Holy Communion or even disagreed with me over the interpretation of some doctrine. I got weary of the fight, but I hope better reasons for my mellowing are that I’ve become wiser, more understanding, and above all, less full of myself as The One, Holy Arbiter of All Things True and Good.

I forget exactly when I first encountered the term “adiaphora” (ah-dee-af-oh-rah), meaning “things indifferent,” but I’m glad I did. It’s an important concept. The word originally was used by the ancient philosophers known as “Stoics” to refer to matters that were morally neutral, doing neither good nor harm. But since the Reformation, it’s been applied to rites and practices, particularly in worship, that vary with circumstance and context. So, what kind of wood the pulpit is made of or whether the choir wears robes or when the announcements are read really doesn’t matter. Of course, I’m speaking generally. In actual practice, there are people in the churches who would more readily deny the Incarnation than give up their insistence that the chancel furniture or the paint on the walls look a certain way. One can almost heard the words of the prophet lamenting such preoccupation: “Why do you spend your money, your time, your energy, for that which is not bread?”

It’s particularly important to own the concept of adiaphora, and expand the list to a pretty long one, when we start talking about Christian unity. The usual practice, of course, is just the opposite. The list of essentials that must divide us from other believers is lengthy, and what we agree on, even in small measure, grows ever shorter. But if “there’s only one Jesus,” as someone put it so succinctly, why do we keep fighting each other, barring each other from the Table or ministry, and labeling each other “heretics,” “unholy,” “ignorant” or any of many other derogatory terms that must make our one Jesus weep?

Think for a moment about all the ways Christians are divided or can be, whether in a congregation, a denomination, a nation or across the globe. We disagree about the nature of ordination, including who may be ordained, what their education needs to be, and what to call them once they have hands laid on or whatever the process is. Is a “priest” someone who lifts up the transubstantiated body and blood of Christ at an altar or are we all priests? What is a sacrament and how many did Christ leave us? Two? Seven? Or are there sacraments at all? Instead, shouldn’t we speak of “ordinances” and “memorials”? What is the purpose of marriage, and who can be married by the Church? How does one become a member of the Church and at what age? What is the proper way to govern the church? By bishops and their appointees? By the voice of the people in a pure democracy? By teaching and ruling elders elected by the congregation? What is or should be the relationship of the Church to and with the State? How should we regard people of another faith? And most of all, perhaps, what is the nature of the Bible, how do we read and interpret it for today, indeed, how many books of the Bible are there? No wonder there are 40,000 Christian denominations worldwide!

We shouldn’t beat ourselves up too badly, though. The early Church struggled with division as well. It was not the pure and pretty monolithic structure we sometimes imagine it to be, the perfect model for us. The New Testament is honest about the problems. Paul opposes Peter “to his face.” A council argues over the requirements for admission of Gentiles into the faith. Corinthians squabble over which leader they owe loyalty to and what gifts are the best and most desirable. Two women in another church vie for power.

The same sorts of conflict are evident in the gospel of John and the associated letters. John tells the story of the expansion of the Church, first with Jews, then Samaritans, and finally including Greeks. All these groups brought different ideas of spirituality into the body of believers. By the end of the first century when John was written, the situation was not always sweetness and light. In the gospel, Jesus says there are many rooms in his Father’s house, meaning that diversity of viewpoint is welcome, but also that he is the only way to God, so that whatever doctrines and practices the Christians might have adopted, it’s in Jesus that the only ultimate truth is found. In the letters of John, written not by the gospel author but in the same tradition, there is a description of a church split, and the epistles struggle with how to interpret the failure of unity. Back in the gospel, Jesus in the garden prays for the disciples and future believers to be one, maybe indicating that they weren’t. Who prays for something he or she already has?

Neil Carter is an atheist who was once an evangelical Christian and taught in a Christian school. About 35, due to the practices and indefensible beliefs of the Church, he changed his mind, and now he says he daily wrestles “with the implications of unbelief and skepticism amidst a culture which praises faith in the unseen,” namely, that of Mississippi. His latest post to his blog “Godless in Dixie,” raises this question about Christian unity and particularly about Jesus’ prayer for unity:  “Did you know that Jesus gambled his entire legitimacy on the unity of the church? He really did, it’s found in John 17:20-23, and it is by far the most dramatically rejected prayer request I have ever heard.

He goes on: “Now this raises a number of questions, but first can we establish that this wish has most certainly not been granted? The church has done many things down through the centuries, but maintaining unity has not been one [of] them.  Jesus here likens the unity he wishes for the church to the unity of the triune God (a concept you won’t see so clearly in any other gospel, which is a problem in itself). But to date the Christian church has splintered into thousands (some would say tens of thousands) of non-cooperating traditions.  Oh sure, they still read the same Bible (mostly), but they have proven incapable of worshiping under the same roof with anyone who believes or practices the Christian faith ‘the wrong way.’

“According to this fourth gospel (technically the author was never named), Jesus ranked his petition for Christian unity as a matter of vital importance: ‘So that the world may believe that you sent me.’  How awkward.

“All this time, Christian apologists have been redirecting our attention away from the here and now, back to the New Testament and to the gospels in particular, and yet here we read Jesus doing precisely the opposite.  He is suggesting that the behavior of his followers as a group should serve as an ongoing marker of his own legitimacy.  He was gambling the credibility of his own claims about himself on Christians’ ability to get along with one another.

“That was a really, really bad move”   (

Maybe so, but it’s one God has taken. He gambles on us, on any and all of every race and land and doctrine and liturgy who profess faith in Jesus Christ, believing that we will by our unity witness to what God has done. Unfortunately, he pretty consistently loses the wager with Presbyterians. As someone once said: “Presbyterians are born to schism as sparks to fly up from flame.” We are an alphabet soup of denominations, most beginning in some sort of conflict: PCUSA, PCA, ECO, EPC, OPC, BPC, CRCNA, RCA, CPC, ARP. And prior to all that were Old Side and New Side, Old School and New School, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, the PCUS, the UPCUSA, and others. Our elders of both sorts promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church, but one or the other of those usually wins out, purity over unity or peace over purity. And the relationships among our councils (sessions, presbyteries, synods, General Assembly) are supposed to express our unity, but often those relationships are indifferent or rancorous.

Having said that, though, we Presbyterians have some pretty good ideas on paper about unity that can and should apply not only to how we get along with each other, but to all Christians. We say that there are some essentials, but the list is pretty short. To be a Christian means to believe in the mystery of the triune God and the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God in Jesus Christ. Then there are some Protestant watchwords that we do not expect of all Christians, and then there are some Reformed distinctives that apply to us. Ordered ministers, that is to say, ruling and teaching elders, promise that they accept the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, but our standards never precisely define those, and the believer who is not ordained need not accept them.

So, for Presbyterians, believe it or not, there are many items under the heading “adiaphora.” And regarding such things, we ought to respect each other in our own churches and other believers of whatever sort. As has long been taught in our tradition: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 20.2).

And: “…[W]e…believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (Presbyterian Synod of New York and Philadelphia, 1788; Book of Order: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church [USA], Part II).

Finally, there’s a common saying regarding adiaphora: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” That last word would be in Hebrew “chesed” and in Greek agápé. It’s the attitude the John tradition urged all believers to have, that the Peter tradition enjoined in today’s reading, that Paul famously sang of in 1 Corinthians as he tried to unite a fractured church. It goes beyond tolerance, which is just putting up with something or someone we don’t like, to true respect, understanding, even giving of oneself for the good of another. Perfect love, said the elder who wrote 1 John, casts out fear, and fear, we know, is the root of hatred. That’s why we need love so much in these days of divisive rhetoric and playing on anxiety. Our Book of Order has a line about our system of government that could apply to any relationship with fellow Christians or fellow human beings: “The polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presupposes the fellowship of women, men, and children united in covenant relationship with one another and with God through Jesus Christ. The organization rests on the fellowship and is not designed to work without trust and love” (G-1.0102).

God calls us to be better than our squabbles over adiaphora. He invites us to show the love, the agápé, of Jesus Christ to each other and to the world, and so prove the reality of his saving work, the authenticity, the truth of the gospel. Our Lord prayed for us to be one. Wouldn’t it be great if finally in this generation his prayer could be answered?


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